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French govt bristles as foreign leaders seize on 'yellow vest' crisis

Monday, 10 December 2018

French govt bristles as foreign leaders seize on 'yellow vest' crisis

APRNEWS - The "yellow vest" protests that have made headlines around the world are garnering France some unwanted attention, particularly from foreign leaders not exactly known for their defence of liberal democracy.

French officials have gone so far as to accuse other nations of "interference" in its domestic affairs over claims the crisis has laid bare the shortcomings of President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Italy's far-right leader Matteo Salvini have criticised Macron over the violent protests, as has his "friend" US President Donald Trump.

"Very sad day & night in Paris. Maybe it's time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes?" Trump tweeted over the weekend.

The comments earned him a stern rebuke from Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who on Sunday told the US leader to "leave our nation be".

France is also looking into claims that Russian-linked social media accounts are trying to stir up trouble by spreading misinformation designed to amplify the protests.

A source close to the inquiry told AFP that the prime minister's security and defence directorate was coordinating the investigation of suspect accounts.

But the source said it was too early to confirm a claim in Britain's Times newspaper that hundreds of accounts linked to Russia were being used to stoke the demonstrations.

Bloomberg news, citing the US-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, has also reported that #giletsjaunes ("yellow vests") has become the top hashtag on 600 Twitter accounts promoting Kremlin views.

"That's a pretty strong indication that there is interest in amplifying the conflict," Bloomberg quoted the alliance's social media analyst Bret Schafer as saying.

A Kremlin spokesman rejected the accusations Monday as "nothing but slander".

"We have not interfered and we don't plan to interfere in the domestic affairs of any country, including France," the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.

- 'Exploiting the situation' -

Italy's Salvini has also tried to fuel a narrative that the protests, which originated over anger at fuel tax hikes, underscore the failings of Macron's push to reform the French economy.

The "yellow vest" movement has since ballooned into a protest against declining living standards, in particular in rural and small-town France.

The government has already backed down on a hated fuel tax increase set for January, and Macron is expected to announce other measures in a televised address Monday night.

"Now those left behind are on the street, the thousands of honest people who have been massacred by the French government," Salvini posted on Twitter on Sunday.

Salvini has been a particular target of Macron, who is trying to forge an alliance of pro-European centrists to counter the populist waves in several countries ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump's nationalist-populist campaign who is now preaching a rightwing revolt across Europe, said in Brussels over the weekend that "Paris is burning."

"The yellow vests... are exactly the same type of people who elected Donald Trump... and who voted for Brexit," Bannon said.

Turkey's Erdogan, meanwhile, went so far as to accuse French police of "disproportionate violence" against the demonstrators.

"Disorder reigns in several European countries, starting with Paris. TVs and newspapers are filled with images of burning cars, looted shops, and the violent police response against the protesters," he said Saturday.

France's Health Minister Agnes Buzyn denounced the comments as unacceptable "interference".

"I am furious when I hear these extremist politicians exploiting this situation," she told LCI television Sunday.

"These people are exploiting the situation to justify their own anti-climate, totalitarian policies," she said.